The planning of New York’s Croton Aqueduct and a yellow fever outbreak make up the historical backdrop for Australian-born Wood’s debut.
In the roiling, politically corrupt Manhattan of 1824, newspaper editor Eamonn Casey’s visionary plan to construct an aqueduct that will bring millions of gallons of desperately needed fresh water to the city is possible only if he cuts a deal with Wall Street businessman John Laidlaw. And that deal means Casey must use the New York Herald to smear physician David Hosack, who warns that all shipping should be quarantined to prevent yellow fever from being imported from the West Indies. Dr. Hosack and his idealistic assistant, Albert Dash, who lost his entire family in the 1814 yellow-fever epidemic, battle the authorities’ obstinate refusal to close the port, but they can’t overcome the combination of Laidlaw’s old-money clout and Irishman-made-good Casey’s savvy manipulation of the popular press and of bare-knuckled Bowery-boy enforcers. Meanwhile, Casey’s daughter Virginia pines over Albert, who enjoys her intellectual companionship but is engaged to her best friend, Vera Laidlaw, a flighty actress. The improbability of a patrician New Yorker like Laidlaw allowing his daughter to appear on the stage is one of several weak strands in the story, which is far stronger on period detail and atmosphere, from marvelous descriptions of shopping on Broadway to grim ones of agonized fever victims in Hosack’s Bellevue Hospital. Fortunately, Wood is inspired enough by the historical material to make vivid Laidlaw’s financial skullduggery, Casey’s ethical quandary, and Hosack’s stiff-necked rectitude. The old men’s maneuvers are far more interesting than the young folks’ romantic difficulties and drive the narrative smartly toward the inevitable arrival of yellow fever, which clarifies both sides of the plot to almost everyone’s satisfaction.
Only adequate as fiction, Wood’s first brings to life a bygone age with such vigor—and points out the relevance of its conflicts with such intelligence—that readers with an interest in Old New York will readily forgive its failings.